Thanks, Soooz. I appreciate the opportunity.
To enable my readers to get to know you a little, perhaps we can start with where you were born and raised?
I was born and raised in the United States: born in Pittsburgh, PA, but raised since age 6 in the suburbs north of Chicago, IL. I went to college in Santa Barbara, CA, and studied in England. Other than that, I’ve lived most of my life, when not traveling, in the Chicago suburbs.
Are you in a relationship?
At present, the only serious relationship are the ones I’ve long enjoyed with the written word and the open road.
Where do you currently live?
About 40 minutes from downtown Chicago, in a nice, leafy, green suburb with nearby woods—but still easy striking distance to the theaters, museums, and restaurants of the city—and only 20 minutes from O’Hare International Airport.
You walked away from a lucrative career to follow a dream; share that decision with us?
The corporate world was interesting and fun at first, because I’m good at solving problems, and there were always problems to solve. But after a few years, I began to realize that I needed something different. I tried changing corporations and then fields, but I still never felt really at home. I thought academe might be a better choice, so I started graduate school part time, while still working full time. I thought an advanced degree might lead to teaching at a university. However, at the end of my first year, a professor wrote on one of my papers that I was a brilliant writer, but the qualities that make a great writer do not necessarily make a good scholar. He meant it as scathing criticism, but for me, it was like my fairy godmother had just hit me with her wand, awakening me from a spell. Writing was like breathing to me, and no one pursues breathing as a career—but it was if I had been given permission to do just that. At the moment I read that note, I knew two things: I had to pursue writing as a career, not just as a hobby, and I had to get out of the corporate world if I was going to do that.
It takes guts to do what you did, were you ever afraid that you had made the wrong decision?
I did worry a bit during the planning process, and I had a few panic attacks leading up to giving notice at work. But fortunately, the saving, planning, and preparing kept me busy enough that I didn’t think too much about the potential negatives. I just focused on the goal. Then, once I was out the door, the sense of being on the right path was so strong that I never again thought that it was anything other than the right path. I do think that, as much work as is involved in something like this, it would be hard to stay on track if you weren’t fairly convinced that you were headed in the right direction.
What started your obsession with my beautiful Australia?
I had had a lifelong interest in Australia. Between the Aussies my dad knew from World War II in North Africa and those he met in business over the years, I’d long heard of what great people they were. And when those friends sent gifts, they sent books about Australia. However, it wasn’t until I decided that I had to get out of the corporate world, to pursue a writing career, that Australia became something of an obsession. I knew I’d need to get far away—to really shake free of the whole career-track mindset, to challenge myself, and to remove the temptation to take a job offer—and Australia seemed like the perfect place. Also, I’d lived in England, had traveled to Europe five times, and had seen a fair bit of Canada and the US, and I knew they weren’t the right place. They weren’t different enough. Australia was far away, but it was more—it was a place with a history of people starting over. And it had, for some reason, captured my imagination at a deep level. The more I read, the more I wanted to go.
I love the title of your book “Waltzing Australia” what decided you on the name?
It’s funny, but the title occurred to me even before the book occurred to me. It was, of course, inspired by the classic Banjo Paterson poem and the song based on the poem, “Waltzing Matilda.” Though I was carrying more than a swag as I wandered, I was still waltzing around the country. I felt connected to that whole wandering spirit tradition.
What did you know about Australia before arriving here?
About as much as you could learn from books. When I decided to go, I began to study seriously. I not only read books about Australia, I also read books by Australian authors, from Miles Franklin to Patrick White. I drank Australian wine and went to Australian movies. I knew there would be surprises and that I’d learn more as I traveled, but I didn’t want to waste time wondering what to do or where to go. Even though I arrived with little more than luggage and a hotel for my first few nights, I had a good foundation on which to make plans and knew when the weather should be most suited to exploration in all the places I wanted to see.
How long did you spend travelling across the country?
On that first trip, I spent almost six months traveling around and across Australia. I’ve been back three times since then, though only for one month each time.
|View from The Great Ocean Road|
Roughly how many miles did you cover?
I covered almost 20,000 miles on that first journey.
How well prepared were you?
Intellectually, I’d say I was well prepared—I’d done my homework. But practically, I wasn’t all that well prepared. I had good shoes, but I didn’t have a flashlight, a swimsuit, a sleeping bag. Fortunately, I could buy all those once I arrived. However, I’d say I was even less prepared emotionally. I had thought I’d enjoy Australia, but I was completely blown away. I fell in love with the land, the people, the energy, everything. I was besotted. And it changed me, or perhaps it just uncovered who I was but never knew it until Australia. I was not the same person when I left.
So you arrived and set off, where did you begin the journey?
I began in Brisbane. It was warm and a little exotic, and it seemed like a safe place to start. It gave me a good base from which to begin planning the rest of my trip and a chance to find out if I had completely miscalculated. After all, not only had I not been without a job since I was 16, I hadn’t been anywhere close to anything resembling wilderness since the summer camps of my youth. From Brisbane, I could take day trips into the rainforest, while still returning to a bed each night. However, it took less than one day for me to realize I was exactly where I was supposed to be and had picked the right trajectory.
What surprised you the most about Australia?
My reaction to it is what surprised me most. I expected to see the plants and animals I saw. I didn’t expect to fall in love. It was like I’d read the resume before coming, and finally connected with the reality, and it was electric.
I have found the book to be very accurate, and the photography on the blog that supports the book is stunning. Did you already have an avid interest in photography when you began?
Thank you. I worked hard to make it accurate. As for the photography, I have always loved it. Our family was always very visually oriented, and my brother is actually an artist. I can’t draw, but I could capture beauty with the camera. Not every photo is great, but they all tell stories and help share the experience, and sharing is what I’m all about.
So, what is it about writing freelance that appeals so much to you?
I love the variety. I love that I get to study new things all the time, and interview interesting people, and read and explore, and it’s all part of my job. I also love the independence and flexibility. I can just work extra hard and get a project done and then take time off to spend with family or to travel. You actually work longer hours as a freelancer, but you can generally plan when to work them. I put in a lot of 14-hour days. However, as my dad declined, I was able to spend a lot of long weekends with him. When my mom had surgery, I could stay with her for a month. But I still had a trip or two each year. You couldn’t do that with a “real” job. Freelancing is not for everyone—you have to be good at creating your own structure and you need to be very motivated—but it suits me perfectly. As for the writing part of freelance writing, I love to share. I’m something of a cross between a storyteller and a teacher. Whatever I see or experience, I want to share it with others, and writing lets me do that.
You have travelled very widely since the first trip down under; please share a few of those places with my readers.
I’ve enjoyed museums and restaurants in France and toured England’s literary landscape. I’ve drunk fermented mares’ milk with nomad herders in Mongolia’s Gobi Desert and had yak butter tea in Tibet. I’ve drifted in a dugout canoe along the Rio Napo in the Amazon rainforest and in a houseboat along the backwaters of Kerala, India. I’ve gone to cooking school in Oaxaca, Mexico. I’ve cruised the Nile and the Yangtse. I’ve seen “lost” cities in Cambodia and Jordan, browsed markets in Morocco, Japan, Ecuador, Thailand, and Vietnam, and admired glaciers in Alaska and Iceland. Of course, as noted above, I’ve also gotten back to Australia regularly. It is unlikely I’d have taken many of those trips without my time in Australia, because it was that first trip to Australia that taught me that I love adventure and more challenging places.
After six months away from the corporate sector did you attempt to rejoin the marketplace? Or did you do it tough and follow your heart in the freelance sector?
There were a few times going back flitted through my mind. It would certainly have been easier than building a whole new career. But I had changed enough that I couldn’t really imagine going back, so I just kept pushing forward.
How difficult was that?
I had put all my energy into preparing for Australia, and none into figuring out how to have a writing career, so I was starting from scratch when I got home. I’d thought it would take at least a year, so I’d saved enough for that, but I did end up having to pick up some retail work for a while, just to slow the outflow of money, but without its being anything I’d be tempted to stay in. I got really good at cooking beans and rice and could live for a week on about $5. Fortunately, I had been writing my whole life, so it wasn’t a matter of learning my craft as much as it was figuring out how to connect with the marketplace. Articles began to sell almost immediately, but you can’t pay rent with one article a month. It took about three years to get to a place where I didn’t need anything except writing.
Your book has had a good response both here in Australia and overseas…to whom do you think the book appeals the most?
The book appears to have found a pretty wide audience. I’ve heard from retirees, business people, world travelers, educators, teens, and even a college student who changed his course of studies after reading it. Of course, the easiest connection is with people who love to travel or those who have dreams, whether they’ve followed the dreams or not.
While the book appeals to a wide audience, it was intended for an audience of non-Australians. Australian readers enjoy the adventures and discoveries, and some have even learned about places they haven’t visited yet, but much of the detail, especially the glossary and appendix that give background on Burke and Wills, the First Fleet, Ned Kelly, Banjo Paterson, and other historic figures and events, is geared for people who are not familiar with Australia.
What else have you written?
I’ve published more than 500 articles, mostly on food, travel, and life style, and I wrote a food history column for 13 years. The academic tendencies that had originally sent me to graduate school have been useful in keeping me employed, as well, and I’ve written for almost every major educational publisher in the US, including the Colonial Williamsburg Foundation, specializing in history, geography, and language arts.
Where can we read some of your freelance work?
One easy place is Hungry Magazine. I wrote food history and travel pieces for them for three years, before they went to sleep (I keep hoping they’ll revive). I also did reviews and other stories for Hungry, but it’s easiest to just link you to the category to which I contributed the most:
There are links to other articles on my web site (World Plate), and “retreads” of articles on my second blog. That just represents a small portion of my freelance writing, but if people are interested in food, travel, or history, it will give them a bit of interesting reading.
And if anyone is curious, here’s an excerpt from the book—my first encounter with the rainforest outside of Brisbane.
Please share your other sites with my readers?
Where can you be reached by publishers wanting to utilize your skills?
They can reach me through the contact info on my website (which essentially acts as my C.V.): http://www.worldplate.com/
Do you have other works in progress?
I’m working on a couple of books right now. I’d like to do a sequel to Waltzing Australia, sharing the adventures of my three return trips. I’m also working on a book of the histories of the most important foods in the world, “important” being defined either as foods that changed history or foods that are currently sustaining massive portions of the planet.
Where do you envisage yourself both personally and professionally in 2011?
I’d like to have a second book getting ready for publication and have Waltzing Australia sufficiently widely know that clients come looking for me, instead of my constantly having to market myself.
What country is next on the agenda?
I’m currently considering Russia or Central America. Of course, Australia is always on the list, and I hope to get back in the next few years. (I’ve been back three times since the trip in the book, but I don’t imagine I’m ever going to get Australia out of my blood.)
You are also fascinated with the cuisines of the countries that you visit, do you plan on incorporating this into your writing?
I do a lot of food writing, actually, though not the usual restaurant reviews or such. I’ve written chef profiles, about local specialty farmers, about ingredients, about farmers markets, and, most of all, about food history. I was recently invited to contribute two major articles to the forthcoming Encyclopedia of Food and Culture (on Mongolia and Jordan). And my second blog (The World’s Fare) features a lot of food history and travel with a focus on food.
Thank you for joining me today. I hope to catch up with you on your next visit down under.
That would be lovely. I’ll hope it’s not too far in the future.